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How to Do Jewish Right

As an immigrant from the Soviet Union, I had trouble adjusting to life as an American Jew

Margarita Gokun Silver
July 29, 2021
Konstantin Goldenberg/Shutterstock
Konstantin Goldenberg/Shutterstock
Konstantin Goldenberg/Shutterstock
Konstantin Goldenberg/Shutterstock

Until about halfway into the third grade I had a pretty normal Soviet childhood. Get up in the morning, eat a cheese sandwich, walk to school, show your change of shoes at the door, take your place in the second row of your classroom, get selected to be the captain of your Little Red Star group, use recess to organize your Little Red Star group to work on a poster for the upcoming celebration of the Russian Revolution, join the rest of your elementary school to learn to march like a Red Army soldier for the school parade during the said celebration, and avoid the school bathroom at all costs unless that was the day you practiced your Cold War defense and had a gas mask to wear. In the third grade, though, it was time to become devious. That deviousness included challenging authority, which for a nine-about-to-turn-ten-year-old meant sneaking into the teacher’s journal while the teacher was out during recess.

The goal was to learn the grades we’d received for some previous test and I was completely on board with that. Until the boys who were running the show turned to the first page of the journal and stopped dead with excitement.

“Look!” One of them practically squealed in delight pointing his finger with a dirty, bitten nail at me. “She’s a Jewess!”

Everyone stared. My first thought was: Chto zdes’ proiskhodit?, which today could be translated as WTF? My second thought was: Why are they looking at me like there’s something wrong with me? Do I have a booger sticking out of my nose or something? My third thought was: What is a Jewess?

If you’re surprised that a nine-year-old Jewish child didn’t know she was Jewish, don’t be. I’m surprised at this myself now, but that’s because I raised my daughter to be proudly Jewish, sent her to a Jewish day school and then to Hebrew school, and paid for a large gathering of family members to witness her become a Bat Mitzvah and then dance the night away on a dance floor filled with 13-year-olds. My daughter knew she was Jewish the moment my husband told her about the Holocaust when she was two. (He didn’t hold back either, gas chambers were front and center in that story, I kid you not. For the record, I wasn’t on board. I thought he could have waited until she turned three.) In contrast, I didn’t know I was Jewish until that boy pointed at me and shared my ethnicity with the whole class because he was proud he could read and that information was readily available in the teacher’s journal.

From the moment I was “discovered” as a Jew, things pretty much went downhill for me. The taunting was daily and real, the institutionalized and systemic anti-Semitism was real, the animosity and jeering at bus stops and in queues were real. On the plus side, if quantum physics was my jam, I could have probably invented an invisibility cloak because in both my school and, later, at university I pretty much aced the art of being invisible. It helped that I didn’t look Jewish and that my last name didn’t sound Jewish, and that I successfully contributed to the aura of my persona of not-being Jewish by never mentioning the subject, never speaking up against anti-Semitic utterances, and completely ignoring that part of myself like it was the elephant in the room if the elephant stood for the second-class citizen status bestowed on us at birth and the room stood for our supposedly equal Motherland.

Then Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost made all kinds of bigotry okay to print. The freedom of speech vibe was worth it for a while—or until someone suggested we keep the lights off in our apartment on a certain night because that was the night a mob of anti-Semites, bent on weeding out the Jews, was supposed to sweep through Moscow. That didn’t seem like a healthy way to discuss our differences, or even a good prelude to finding ways to get our Soviet family of disenfranchised ethnicities together and save the country from the sinkhole towards which it was heading. Besides, I wasn’t going to do the saving if my people were being blamed for all of this destruction. Hello, they took part in the Revolution just like everyone else but constituted only about two percent of the population, so how much blame did that really warrant? Meanwhile my dedushka’s nephew sent letters from the US singing the praises of its freedom of religion (while also extolling the virtues of capitalism), and our completely non-religious family decided it was time to figure out what being Jewish meant, aside from being derided, hated, and blamed for a poor collective farm harvest.

From the moment I was ‘discovered’ as a Jew, things pretty much went downhill for me.

I need to point out here that most Soviet Jews I knew—or had heard about—weren’t religious. In our family, the only proof that being Jewish meant having some kind of relationship with God (aside from being the chosen people to accept the abuse our compatriots leveled at us) was my dedushka fasting on Yom Kippur and crisscrossing Moscow before Passover in search of matzo. He never explained any of this to me, but maybe that was because I didn’t bother to ask since I was too busy being a disciplined atheist whose idea of God came from Karl Marx and also from our neighbor at the dacha, the wife of a Russian Orthodox priest, who prayed every morning at 6 a.m., waking me up and thus cementing my conclusion that believing in God wasn’t really my thing.

The first Jewish holiday we celebrated properly was Passover. It happened in Italy during immigration, and by properly I mean we almost made it to the end of the Haggadah reading before we broke down and started sneaking hard-boiled eggs and matzo under the table. In our defense, no one explained that we should have eaten before we showed up to what was advertised as a Passover dinner; because why would you eat if you’d been promised a free dinner and could therefore save your leftover pasta for the next day? We walked in to see long tables set up with large round plates with edible items, and maybe when they started the service they mentioned we weren’t supposed to eat those just yet but I don’t remember that. For a while there we were disciplined and behaved in a really cultured way as we waited for the hosts to start the meal, but when, half an hour later, it became apparent that at the head of the table they were clearly occupied with reading something in Hebrew none of us understood, the sound of hard-boiled eggs being cracked under the tables filled the room. On the plus side, that dinner was the first time I tried gefilte fish and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it’s a fish with potato aspirations and that’s just weird.

In America, we were fully expected to attend services in a synagogue because the committee that volunteered to welcome us to the US was founded in that synagogue. Obviously, we didn’t want to disappoint our hosts, so off we went to the Shabbat services every Friday evening and there we leafed through the siddurs like we were born to do it until someone pointed out we had to start at the end of the book and turn those pages in the opposite direction. My grandfather sat in the front row and attempted to learn Hebrew using his limited knowledge of Yiddish; my father sat in the back row and, like the good atheist he was raised to be, questioned every reference to God; and I sat wherever was closer to the room where they served what they called kiddish and I called “the new kind of American cookies to try.”

That lasted for a few weeks or until my parents moved to Ohio. On arrival, they gleefully reported there were no synagogues in their tiny town and so they went back to being Jewish the way they understood it—with ham in their fridge and without any praying on Friday nights. My dedushka moved to Los Angeles and could now pray in Russian, which was a relief both for him and his new American friends who didn’t count on having to teach an old man English while ingesting those kiddish cookies. And I stopped going to services because there was singing involved and I was completely tone deaf. Plus, I didn’t know any of the words so I couldn’t even make it look as if I was singing the way I’d done when the choir teacher had chosen five-year-old me to stand in the front row on account of my face being very expressive. “Just don’t sing out loud,” he’d told me. “Mouth it.”

I could just sin to my heart’s content and then admit it and get off that easily? I mean, even the Communist Party wasn’t that lenient.

But, honestly, it wasn’t just the singing. The whole concept of a God, of some higher power, sitting up there and deciding to dispense punishment if you didn’t pray hard enough or if you didn’t show up for services or if you showed up only to see what kind of cookies they were serving that evening, was completely foreign to me. I just couldn’t buy into the idea that I was subject to someone else’s power, someone who seemed almost as fickle as those medieval lords towering over their serfs—and didn’t we get rid of those in 1917? Also, I could just sin to my heart’s content and then admit it and get off that easily? I mean, even the Communist Party wasn’t that lenient, and we were talking about an omnipotent being that had more than gulags at his disposal. And why was it always “He”? Why not “She”? If no one had ever seen the deity we prayed to, why were we using the male pronoun? Didn’t we have enough of the old men patriarchy here on Earth?

Since I was new to this whole religion thing and also because speaking up as a young immigrant was against my immigration manual, I didn’t share any of this blasphemy with anyone. Instead, I decided self-righteousness was the way to go, and by that I mean I figured that if I couldn’t become truly Jewish by sincerely believing everything that the siddur claimed had happened, I could try to become truly Jewish by criticizing whatever glaringly un-Jewish actions my parents engaged in. In other words, repeat after me: if you desperately want to join your family in celebrating the New Year by putting up a New Year’s tree as you’ve done for years but can’t now because that New Year’s tree is actually a Christmas tree in America and that’s fundamentally un-Jewish, then you express your displeasure at their tree by lecturing them about how to be truly Jewish. This is a topic you know nothing about but nevertheless feel indignant enough to be qualified to preach on behalf of all American Jewry of whom you don’t feel part, but desperately want to.

My parents are never ones to back down, especially in an argument that comes from me since, as parents, they automatically know better and, as a child, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Which is a stance I would ordinarily have a problem with, but looking back now I can grudgingly admit they had a point. The how of being Jewish didn’t have to be defined as either one of the two extremes—the Soviet one where you were ethnically Jewish but religiously a non-believer, or the American one where you couldn’t be Jewish without being able to carry the tune. But because I’d just arrived from the land of polarities, from the country where gray was the color of people’s moods and not an opinion option, and from a system where “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” was part of the national anthem, naturally I assumed the pendulum had to swing the other way for me to belong.

I gave all of that up a few years down the road, mainly because it was exhausting to criticize my parents’ annual Hanukkah bush, but also because no matter how hard I criticized and no matter how hard I tried to turn my face into a model of dramatic delight whenever I ended up in the synagogue and had to join in the singing, belonging just wasn’t happening. It was almost like reverse déjà vu—as a former Soviet Jew I felt almost as foreign among American Jews as I felt being Jewish among the Russians. Hello, what? I’d emigrated because I wanted to find my people and join my tribe, but then this seemingly was never coming to be, so, huh? What was I even?

Excerpted from I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales): Notes from a Soviet Girl on Becoming an American Woman. Margarita Gokun Silver, © 2021. Published by Thread Books, an imprint of Bookouture, part of Hachette. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance journalist, essayist, and novelist.

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